Ijeoma Oluo, Rachel Dolezal and White Privilege
Updated: May 31, 2020
Over the years working in cases of harassment and discrimination in the workplace I have tried to imagine what it might be like to be other than I am—to be other than a white privileged male. I have read books on black history and slavery, indigenous histories and genocide, the history of the women’s emancipatory movement. At some level I thought that making myself aware of the background of racism and discrimination would help me better understand what it was like to experience the latter.
Instead, the more I read the more evident it became to me that I would always remain a white privileged male who would never truly understand what it was like to be dark-skinned, Indigenous or female because I had not ‘lived it’ day after day, year after year. My own lived experience, my options, choices and interactions, my way of thinking and being would always be qualitatively different simply because I am a white man in a world that economically, socially and politically privileges both maleness and whiteness.
Yes, I could make myself more sensitive towards and aware of contexts or situations of discrimination. I could even experience in protest a sense of solidarity or unity with my brothers and sisters. But unlike the Indigenous person, the person of colour or of another gender I could not experience the feeling of being treated differently or the sense of outrage that they lived with not just during a social protest but every day of their lives. I had the luxury of being able to retreat after a protest into the security of my male white world.
Yesterday I was doing some research on white nationalism conspiracy theories and I came across the Ijeoma Oluo interview with Rachel Dolezal
(https://www.thestranger.com/…/the-heart-of-whiteness-ijeoma…) Dolezal is the white woman who pretended to be a black woman and actually became the President of the NAACP chapter in Spokane. Her white parents outed her and she eventually resigned from the NAACP.
However, to this day she ‘self-identifies’ as black—to the point where she has since renamed herself as Nkechi Amare Diallo. As Ijeoma Oluo concludes, only a white privileged person who was born in a white privileged culture could think that “black identity was hers for the taking. Dolezal is simply a white woman who cannot help but center herself in all that she does—including her fight for racial justice. And if racial justice doesn't center her, she will redefine race itself in order to make that happen. It is a bit extreme, but it is in no way new for white people to take what they want from other cultures in the name of love and respect, while distorting or discarding the remainder of that culture for their comfort.”
Ijeoma Oluo has a new book coming out which I have ordered: “So You Want to Talk About Race". Here is a line from that book: “It is very hard to survive as a woman of color in this world and I remember saying once that if I stopped to feel, really feel, the pain of the racism I encountered, I would start screaming and I would never ever stop.”
When you hear people on Fox news lamenting the fact that all this feminist talk of race is intended to promote self-hatred in white men. Instead of recognizing the extent to which white males are part of a culture that manifests white supremacy they manage to turn the entire issue around so that it is now about how we should all be sympathizing with those poor, down-trodden white privileged males that political correctness has turned into 'self-haters'. The point of Ijeoma Oluo's book is to help people see nuances of racism that they were probably not aware of, including within themselves. It is instructive and worth reading. The reality is that we are dealing with systemic racism in all aspects of our white culture, institutions and social behaviours that has been built over centuries--we are not talking just about individual acts of oppression. Whether or not you consider yourself 'racist' you are still a part of a racist system. The real problem is that it is our very advantages and privileges that often prevent us from seeing the disadvantages and experiences of discrimination that others not so privileged live with every day. No matter how well-intentioned we might be as individuals, our complacency with that system makes us all complicit.
It has taken me a lifetime to grasp that my own privilege and power as a white male was often invisible to me--precisely because the world I occupy is grounded on white supremacy, at a political, cultural, economic and institutional level. I think about it like the fish who does not know it is in the water--it's easy to forget that what you are born with, live in and are surrounded by is the norm because it's what you know. To another not born into or having lived your privilege, the world of white privilege stands out like a sore thumb.
When I was 13 my mother gave me a book to read called 'Black Like Me' by journalist John Howard Griffin. Griffin travelled around the deep south during segregation disguised as black person. He was not doing it because he 'self-identified' as a black man, but in order to discover in a visceral lived way what it would be like to be discriminated against as a black person in the racialized south. It made a deep impression on me--even though I thought that the 6 weeks he did this for was by no means an entire lifetime. There is a sense in which a person who actually experiences discrimination or oppression is often the best person to judge this experience. But this raises a paradox: are different kinds of discrimination equal or should they be treated differently based on things like history and circumstance? This is where the notion of intersectionality has some traction--the view that there are multiple forms of discrimination that crossover or overlap at social, political and economic levels. It seems to me that black woman or Indigenous females suffer under different layers of overlapping discrimination.
I think Ijeoma Oluo's interview with Rachel Dolezal demonstrates something important: how an otherwise thoughtful person could be entirely blind to the reality that fraudulently passing herself off as a black person is just another form of racial discrimination by way of cultural appropriation.